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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Producer: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb and J.C. Chandor 
Director:  J.C. Chandor
Writer:  J.C. Chandor
Stars: Pscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Glenn Fleshler, David Margulies and Jerry Adler 
Studio:  A24 Films

B

One might not have heard many calls for a melodrama centered on the delivery of home heating-oil, but J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost”) makes a fairly strong case for such an unlikely tale with “A Most Violent Year,” a period piece that uses the mob-connected milieu of New York-New Jersey in the eighties to comment, as the “Godfather” movies did, on the unsavory underbelly of the American dream.

Oscar Isaac cuts a slick figure totally unlike the unkempt singer-songwriter of “Inside Llewyn Davis” as Abel Morales, a smooth operator whose perfectly-coifed hair and impeccable camel-hair topcoat signify his arrival as a major player in the home heating-oil business in the New York area—a fellow who worked his way up from being a mere truck driver to marrying the boss’s daughter and taking over the operation. The industry is dominated by families with fairly unsavory connections, who seem a bit miffed that a newcomer, with some strange ideas about breaking the rules as infrequently as possible, might be encroaching on their profits. Someone has decided to retaliate by targeting Morales’ trucks, hijacking them, stealing the oil they’re carrying and harassing the drivers in the process, while also mounting attacks on his young sales staff. That’s all against the backdrop of Abel’s plan to purchase a waterfront property that will allow him to improve distribution at lower cost and win a larger share of the market—which he’s complementing with a sales push to increase the number of his customers at the expense of competitors, of course. Meanwhile, Morales finds himself in the sights of Lawrence (David Oyelowo), an ambitious Assistant DA whose investigation, as Abel’s house lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) warns, could bring everything down.

Abel’s story is contrasted with that of one of his drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel), whom he’s taken under his wing (apparently seeing in him a reflection of his younger self), and who’s injured when his truck is hijacked. After returning to the job, a fearful Julian decides to take a gun along with him—a tactic proposed to Morales by Teamsters union boss Bill O(‘Leary (Peter Gerety) but dismissed because of the legal troubles it might cause. Events prove his reluctance well justified, as Julian takes on the hijackers on his own, only to be left on the run from the cops.

Trying to save Julian while fending off Lawrence’s queries, finding out who’s behind the attacks on his trucks and salesmen, and raising the money needed to complete his deal with Josef (Jerry Adler), the waterfront property’s owner, before he loses his down payment (a prospect raised by the bank’s sudden refusal to act on his loan request) simultaneously put Abel in quite a bind, to say the least. Fortunately he has an ally with fewer scruples than he—not his lawyer, a supremely cautious fellow, but his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), a silken beauty with an iron spine who’s key to making sure that Lawrence’s search of their house turns up nothing and far more willing to use a bullet to solve a problem than her husband is.

As writer, Chandor ably works through this welter of plot complications, reaching a climax—or more properly a series of climaxes—that are generally satisfying, even if the subplot about Julian comes off a little too pat as a commentary on how wrong the dream about making it in this country can go. And as director he’s successful not only in creating a palpable sense of place—something that production designer John P. Goldsmith, costume designer Kasia Walicka Mamone and set decorator Melanie Baker help with enormously—but in ratcheting up the tension gradually while staging a few nifty chase scenes (abetted in this by editor Ron Patane). The overall look of the film, shot in widescreen by Bradford Young, is equally essential to the mood, evoking memories of the great New York-set pictures actually made in the period.

And the casting is splendid, not only in terms of Isaac and Chastain, who capture Abel’s hard-driving, confidently cocky but still vulnerable persona and Anna’s icy resolve with aplomb, but also in the secondary roles. Brooks is wonderful as the observant but laid-back lawyer, and Adler steals his few scenes as the Jewish landlord willing to cut Morales some slack simply because it suits him. Oyelowo makes a straight-arrow antagonist, and Alessandro Nivola a smoothly fast-talking, well-connected competitor who warns Abel against borrowing money from people like himself. In smaller roles people like Gerety and David Margulies carry their own local color with them onto the set.

The New York-Jersey weather in “A Most Violent Year” looks crisp and cold. But like the films made by Sidney Lumet in the same gritty urban locale, it quickly heats up to a simmer and generates considerable tension in exploring the darker byways of the drive for success in America.

WINTER SLEEP (KIS UYKUSU)

Producer:  Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan
Director:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writer: Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan 
Stars:  Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Kilic, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak, Ali Nuroglu and Emirhan Doruktutan
Studio: Adopt Films 

A-

Some will undoubtedly be of the opinion that a 196-minute film without car chases, explosions, superheroes, dinosaurs or oversized robots that turn into cars must be boring, but “Winter Sleep” proves them wrong. To be sure, it demands patience and attentiveness, but like a play by Chekhov—its obvious inspiration—the film reveals a great deal about the reality of the human condition through its probing characterizations and pungent dialogue. (Comparisons with the domestic dramas of Edward Albee wouldn’t be out of place, either.)

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”) and written with his wife Ebru, the film is basically a character study that’s also the story of a marriage in trouble. The central character is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, who from some perspectives looks very much like Ian Holm). He owns a hotel in a remote area of the mountains of Cappadocia, literally carved out of the rock, where he lives with his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin is an ex-actor, collecting material for a prospective book on Turkish theatre, and a sort of self-styled arbiter of taste and propriety, penning a regular column for the local newspaper in which he comments scornfully on what he considers lapses of decorum among local residents.

By the standards of the locality Aydin is also a wealthy man, with rental properties in the area. The film opens with him in that role, when Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), a young boy, angrily aims a rock at the passenger window of the rover in which Aydin is being driven by his factotum Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Hidayet catches Ilyas and they take him home, where his gruff father Ismail (Nejat Isler) confronts them, Hidayet taking the lead while Aydin tarries some distance from the confrontation. The family’s hostility results from the fact that they’d failed to pay their rent and so been visited by a debt collector—to Ismail, a humiliation. The next day, however, Ismail’s younger brother, the obsequious imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic) arrives at the hotel with Ilyas in tow to offer proper apologies and beg forgiveness. Aydin only reluctantly agrees to meet with them at all, not because he’s especially angry but because he’s uncomfortable hobnobbing with such people and following the rituals of lordship. He’d prefer keeping a condescending distance and letting intermediaries take care of such matters for him, like the distant lord he is.

At home Aydin faces some trouble from his sister, who bears him some ill-will because, it seems, he had a hand in persuading—perhaps compelling—to leave her husband. They have long conversations about Aydin’s work in his study, which slowly degenerate into mutual insults. His relationship with Nihal is no less tense, especially when he comes upon a meeting of a committee she’s created to raise funds to improve the local schools, where the appearance of the young teacher Levent (Nadir Saribacak) especially irks him. When her husband tries to make a donation—anonymously, he notes—Nihal refuses; and when he tries to commandeer her oversight of the philanthropic effort, supposedly to insure it will be done properly and his reputation won’t be besmirched, she attacks him verbally with as much venom as her sister-in-law had.

The Ceylans offer both an insightful suggestion and a degree of deliberate misdirection when they call Aydin’s hotel the Othello. The theme of jealousy is certainly present, but anyone expecting the film to take the same turn as Shakespeare’s play will be disappointed. The reference is merely to the poison that words can spread—not only Necla and Nihal’s sharp observations about Aydin, but Aydin’s editorial judgments about everyone around him, whether expressed in print, or in conversation, or simply in attitude. By the end of the film—when he’s engaged in a night of drunken discourse with teacher Levent and widowed farmer Suavi (Tamer Levent)—his veneer of imperturbable gentility has been swept aside, and the viewer has come to see him as the arrogant, cynical man he is, dispensing oracular pronouncements on all around him while maintaining an attitude of aloof, privileged disdain. The only people he appears to treat with a degree of respect are the few guests who come to the hotel during the snowy off season—a Japanese couple, a wanderer going nowhere on particular on his motorcycle. Yet before long they all flee his presence.

Still, the air of noblesse oblige is not, as the final scenes of “Winter Sleep” remind us, limited to Aydin, however false his view of himself might be. Nihal attempts some sort of personal redemption in a visit to Ismail and Hamdi, only to find that not everyone is ready to respond to her charitable impulses. The film ends not with the reconciliation one might hope for, but with the recognition that people are who they are, with clashing ideals and perspectives that make them all as uncontrollable as the wild horse Aydin pays a local man to catch for him.

While Aydin might not be able to bend everyone around him to his will, Bilginer dominates the film with a commanding performance filled with nuance and control. Still, he doesn’t entirely eclipse Sozen’s icily passionate precision as a young woman who understands the compromises she’s made in marrying not just an older man but one like him, or Akbag’s embodiment of Necla’s simmering resentment, or Kilic’s nervous subservience as the imam desperately searching for a way to restore a degree of balance to his family’s life. Meanwhile Pekcan provides contrast as the canny, earthier Hidayet.

The acting is central to the success of a piece such as this, but so are the ambience, which Gokhan Tiryaki’s cinematography captures not only in the extraordinary outdoor scenes but in the subtle interior ones as well, and the rhythm, which Ceylan, acting as editor along with Bora Goksingol, keeps unhurried but intense. The strains of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 959, the only music used throughout the film, add a note of ineffable longing to this brilliant but demanding portrait of people trapped by their cultural and emotional baggage in a landscape that emphasizes by its enormity how small they all actually are, whatever their station.